The 52nd HK Arts Festival .Feature

A Fish in the Sea: Youness Atbane and His Art of Waterproofing

Text / Shao yi Chan

You might think the world is at its weirdest with A.I., space tourism and smartphones running wild. None of these, however, come close to the absurdity of the modern Arab art scene, which is what Youness Atbane is portraying in the exquisitely crafted UNTITLED 14 KM, a time travel story that turns both time and space upside down.

In almost surrealist fashion, a man—clad in a stately gold cloak and a metal helmet—takes centre stage within the imaginary "Museum of North African Middle East Contemporary Art" onstage. It turns out that the man comes from Andalusian Spain of the 12th century, a "golden age" in Arab history that generations of Arabs have been taught to take pride in. "Don't ask me how we brought him to the present," Atbane shrewdly adds before I could pose the obvious question. "He's simply there."

The absurdity doesn't end there. The majestic cloak worn by the time traveller is in fact a space blanket—the kind often seen protecting refugees from the cold. As the image of the Middle East becomes associated with refugees crossing into Europe, the paradox is plain to see: an Arab identity torn between victimhood, demonised alien and a glorified past that is only accessible through museum artifacts.

Once inside the performance space, the audience will be drawn to a series of art installations that Atbane and his team have tailor-made for the imaginary museum. For Atbane, who grew up in a family of pottery artists in Morocco, being an artist wasn't as much a choice as a natural course—even though it became increasingly clear that visual artists have little say in the value of their own work. The art market does. But Atbane has his own unique response to this. By turning the performance into a playground for his art pieces, or a "workshop" as he calls it, Atbane has found a solution to both problems: first, how to bypass the art market; and second, how to consummate his love for both performing and visual arts.

It is not hard to see that Atbane's brand of art is many things at once: performance, visual archive and intellectual inquiry into the Arab postcolonial condition. But there's one common denominator: a sense of fluidity that defies stereotypes. This is perhaps why water is such a prominent motif in his works—the "14KM" in UNTITLED 14 KM refers to the width of the Strait of Gibraltar, the stretch of water that separates North Africa from Europe, and which thousands of refugees have tried to cross.

One may question how his work, so rooted in Arab history, might strike a chord with the Hong Kong audience. "I always imagine myself as a fish in the sea, where identity border vanishes and where personal transformation becomes possible."

Arab Arts Focus—Untitled 14KM

Date:23-24 Mar 2024

Venue:Studio Theatre, Hong Kong Cultural Centre

Details: https://www.hk.artsfestival.org/en/programme/Arab_Untitled_14KM?